Deborah Orr: This stupid attempt at social engineering

There are so many reasons why this idea of bussing pupils is a bad idea that it's actually comical
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The Independent Online

I'm reminded of this by the latest breathless emission from the education department designed, as usual, to make us all feel like Plenty Of Things Are Being Done, in order to cover up for the fact that No One Knows What To Do. Ruth Kelly, that junior prefect of an Education Secretary, has decided that it would be a good idea to bus poor pupils into schools in middle-class enclaves in order to end the middle-class stranglehold on decent schools.

There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea that it's actually comical. But the very first reason why it's a bad idea can be seen if you stop looking at the silhouetted interlocutors, and start contemplating the romantic table setting.

Yes, that's right. The Government is suggesting that the children of the wealthy middle-class parents still for some reason sentimentally attached to state schooling should make their own way off on elaborate journeys to sink schools on council estates in order to receive an education at a school considered by the Government to be a bad one. Hmmmm ... Will that work ...

Now, I'm aware that there are still some stubborn people who, due to little things like their political convictions, send their children to the local state secondary even though it's not considered to be that brilliant. The former Downing Street advisers Alastair Campbell and Fiona Miller did it. The human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy did it. The Labour peer Tony Benn did it.

But I'm not aware of any person, middle class or otherwise, who is so ideologically driven that they actually send their child to a school far away precisely because it is appalling. If such a parent does exist, I'd love to hear from him or her - and from the children.

While I'm waiting for that communication, may I note that I find this exercise in looking at the negative rather than the positive shape of what's being said to be every bit as psychologically revealing as the drawing from the fearful Seventies when marvellous things like parental choice didn't exist. It shows, does it not, that the Government is dangerously in denial?

What is it in denial of? It is in denial of its right-wing extremism. This puerile, shallow, stupid attempt at social engineering has been dreamed up, ostensibly, to increase choice for the poor, because the poor have fewer choices than the rich. Yet, if Ruth Kelly had been paying attention during the Thatcher years, she'd know that "parental choice" was simply a way of polarising state education services, so that everyone who could afford it would be driven into the private sector.

That is precisely what this policy will do, because little Hortense isn't going to shrug when she's offered a place only at The Containment High School for the Psychologically Damaged, and remark on how nice it is that a poor child is getting what she is not. She is going to go private.

There is indeed a great deal of resentment that house prices are higher in areas where there are good state schools. But does the Government really think this is the fault of the middle classes? If so, it must drop all that stuff about the market deciding, forthwith. It can also start providing decent social housing in "middle-class enclaves" instead of standing about talking about the "looming housing crisis" while at the same time congratulating itself on so cleverly running the economy when it is based so firmly on house-price inflation due to the severely limited supply of property.

And so many other things to do as well! Even Gordon Brown no longer talks much about his great project "lifting children out of poverty", perhaps because he's noticed that this is incompatible with jailing their parents (and them!), taking away their parents' incapacity benefit, offering their parents shamefully inadequate mental health services, taking a "hard line" against their own and their parents' drug use, deporting them back to repressive regimes or sending the bailiffs round when they owe £50 in council tax for their dreadful services.

Are these the parents who are going to be benefitting from Ruth Kelly's "choice advisers"? Don't make me laugh.

There are a lot of really screwed up people in Britain, and a high proportion of these screwed up people reside, in a symbiotic relationship, among the poor. (Likewise, the relationship between the middle classes and their better schools is largely symbiotic, too. I've not seen any council estates that have been taken over by braying hoorays stampeding to get their kids into the great school there.)

Often the presence of abused, neglected or damaged children in a classroom is not conducive to education. Often, the parents of these children don't care a fig about that. In fact, in many cases they are the ones encouraging the children to display the same sort of resentment to school authority that they felt themselves.

At my local state secondary (and I don't appear to have the luxury of being able to choose a better one), a total of 27 parents filled out the Ofsted questionnaire they were asked to, in a school with a registration of 602. How would bussing those 27 children, the ones with the parents switched on enough to fill out a form, to another school, help that school? I can't imagine.

It is a national disgrace that there are no establishments, in this third term of Labour's government, designed to offer these damaged children the support they need instead of offering them the end-of-the-line "sin-bin" containment of pupil referral, youth custody, Asbos, or the rather more mundane poor-house style schools contending with the next generation of unsolved social difficulties while all the other local families scatter their children to wherever they can wangle a place.

It is here, sadly, among the pupils so inadequately catered for, and the teachers who have to put up with the lack of an alternative, that the illusion of parental choice is most clearly seen. Most teachers will happily explain to Ruth Kelly that the inability to place troubled children in a positive environment outside the mainstream, for either a short or a longer period, is disproportionately damaging to the education of all the pupils in the class or at the school. Why won't she heed what they say?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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